Getting real

"He doesn't smell right!" he exclaimed. "He isn't a rabbit at all! He isn't real!" "I am Real!" said the little Rabbit. "I am Real! The Boy said so!" And he nearly began to cry.

Yesterday I saw a production of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. The story is about a little stuffed bunny’s relationship with a young boy, and the soft toy’s desire to be a “real” rabbit. After much time, the velveteen rabbit does become real in the boy’s eyes. At the end of the story, a fairy gets involved and the rabbit becomes really real, and goes to play with the other bunnies in the woods. The particular theatrical version I saw opened with something wonderful like, “realness isn’t how you look, it’s something you hold in your heart”. It got me wondering, what does it mean to be real?

The other reference to “realness” that came to mind (apart from Pinocchio), was Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. Set in New York in the late 1980s, the film explores the world of underground drag-ball culture. At these balls, gay men and trans* folk (of predominately African American and Hispanic backgrounds), would compete performing various categories of “drag”. Several categories necessitated the effective portrayal of “realness”– for example, Butch-Queen realness was judged on whether the competitor could pass as a heterosexual in the sub-categories of executive, thug, pretty boy, etc. Below is a clip from the film about realness:

For the participants in drag balls, demonstrating realness was a way of showing your potential, if boundaries such as race, class and gender didn’t exist. However in Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler discusses the way in which doing realness creates the boundaries of realness itself- the rules of realness are reinforced. Butler teaches us that getting real is tricky business.

Aside from the drag-ball scene, the realness issue seems pervasive across so many experiences of sexuality and gender. As discussed previously, it’s easy to find oneself in a situation or community where you feel that you don’t meet the “criteria” for acceptance. The trans* community is very often subjected to the rules of realness, as this piece by Tobi Hill-Meyer reminds us (e.g. “you’re not a real transsexual woman if you don’t wear dresses and skirts all the time“).

Haters gonna hate

But back to Velveteen. I think we can take a lot away from this story on the subject of the real. When the rabbit encounters some “real” forest bunnies, they mock the toy for having no legs (“fancy a rabbit without hind legs!”). And while the fairy at the end assures the velveteen rabbit that for the young boy the rabbit was 100% real, she still changes the rabbit and says, “now you shall be real to everyone”. Despite this ending, when the forest bunnies tease earlier in the story, the velveteen rabbit exclaims, “I know I am Real!”. Maybe then, this little rabbit really does teach us that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us real- despite what we look like, or what the haters say. And when the fairy transforms the rabbit into a real forest dweller (though she may be reinforcing what it means to be a real bunny), we know that actually, the velveteen rabbit  was real all along.